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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

June 17, 1915 - New York, New York! - Part VI

---- 9:00 AM, New York, Office of Vice-Admiral Stennis

"Admiral? Admiral Fiske is on the line."

"Very well," Stennis replied, a small frown creasing his face as he reached for the phone.

"Yes? Brad? Good morning to you, too. I did read that report you left me yesterday, the, er, ‘Pratt Report.' By the way, I've known Jonathan and his brothers for years. That and those ‘Red Cross List' stories in the London papers do shed a lot of light on this business, though I'm not sure just what to make of it all. Any objection to me sharing it with Alton?"

"Good. Oh, that's NOT why you called? What then? What? You did WHAT last night?! Brad, you sonofabitch ...!"

Out in the foyer, the senior yeoman, the one closest to the door, winced, as he could make out clearly the admiral's vocabulary choice.

"Hell, admiral, I AM calmed down, you know damn well ...."

The yeoman on the far side of the foyer looked up in alarm, as the vice-admiral's voice threatened to rattle the frosted glass panel out of the door. The senior yeoman looked down the corridor and caught the eye of Stennis' aide, who was deep in conversation with three other JOs.

"Who? Well, why didn't you say that first?! Yeah, yeah. Okay, Brad, you've got my attention already. Now, just why DID you call?"

The admiral's aide drifted into the foyer area, and the senior yeoman began a low-voiced exchange with him.

"Alright, Brad, thank you," Stennis said in a more genial tone, "but you're still a sonofabitch." Stennis smiled at whatever the other replied.

"Meyers?" Stennis called out to his yeoman, as he hung up the phone. Is LT Jenkins out there?"

"Sir?" Jenkins said, as he entered.

"Take these to Admiral Alton. I'll call him, so he'll be expecting you. For your information, I'll be asking him to come see me around noon, and to get his ships ready to put to sea this afternoon."

"Aye, aye, sir."

---- 10:00 AM, Washington, DC, Cabinet Offices

"... so you're saying that The Hague is really there to protect OUR ships?"

"Yes, Mr. Secretary. The ships of ALL neutrals, might be more precise, perhaps, but not here. It guarantees neutral ships protection from seizure or other molestation by belligerents. It regulates the behavior of warring nations. If one side violates The Hague, it could lead to neutrals coming in on the other side against them. It's not worth it. Both sides need neutrals' goods anyway and the last thing they'd want is for neutrals to come in on their enemy's side."

"You said ‘not here.' Please explain."

"Yes, sir. In this kind of case, ‘The Duties and Responsibilities of Neutral Powers,' we -- the neutral power -- are required to keep one side's merchants safe from the warships of the other. In effect, we justify the belligerents' non-interference locally and earn our own ships' free passage elsewhere, distant from our shores, by acting as their surrogate protector within our own waters."

"Hmm, ‘our own waters,' you say. The three mile limit?"

"Literally, yes." The briefer was obviously uncomfortable with that narrow an interpretation.

"Hmm. Wouldn't Roosevelt would know all that?"

"Yes, sir. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, sir."

"So, it was just posturing to the mob after all. And after that Pedecaris affair ...."


"Excuse me. What about mischief? You know, one side pretends to be another and commits some atrocity, that sort of thing."

"I suppose it's possible, sir. But the deliberate, pre-meditated murder of innocents? Just to try to create an incident for an enemy? That's far beyond any ruse of war. That would be seen as an act far more heinous than the deed itself, which could begin due to confusion or mistake. Any nation that engaged in such a conspiracy would remain hostage to every single person even remotely involved, and for the rest of their lives, at that. That's just too much risk, unless the country was willing to murder their people who planned it and did it, and then quickly execute the murderers, then eliminate the executioners, and so on."

"More on that, please."

"Yes, sir." He took a deep breath. "Any country caught at that sort of thing would be branded an outlaw by all nations. Their allies would repudiate them, and might even seek a separate peace. No neutral would ever trust them, not just for years but for generations, and they just might lose all access to commerce." The briefer's eyes glazed at the thought. Every past and future odd event, natural disaster, or strange mishap would be attributed to the outlaw nation, he realized.

"Suppose one navy did alter one or two of their ships to look like another's," he continued. "First of all, it's not that easy a thing to do, sir, not at all, not to do it convincingly enough to have any chance at all of success. Everyone involved in the design work, the machining, the manufacture, and installation would have mortal risk knowledge. Then there's the crew or crews that did the deeds. Even things prefabricated such that they could be used to alter appearance later while at sea would create similar risks. Anyone who developed the plans, or reviewed them, or saw them, or refueled the ships, or even just saw the vessels, well, they would all have mortal risk knowledge. All it would take would be one of them to have second thoughts, a guilty conscience, or simply say one wrong thing -- even years later -- and any such conspiracy to commit such an atrocity would unravel faster than a circus tightrope. Even imitating a single enemy light cruiser would require a crew of 200, with thousands and thousands more of whom only one would need to slip, or answer a question wrong, years into the future. Memoirs, diaries, suicide notes ....

"No, sir. No short term gain would be worth such a long term national liability, not to any nation, no matter how perfidious their conspiratorial fantasies."

---- 10:30 AM, Washington, DC, conference room in the offices of the USN CNO

"... and last night," Colonel Anton continued, "a party of four, including Mr. Ballin and their commodore, were picked up by limousine. They spent the evening at the Fifth Avenue home of Mr. Thomas Fortune Ryan. They returned to the pier ...."

‘So, they did not spend the night there?"

"No, sir," replied the marine, patiently.

"So, none of the other officers left to go anywhere else?"

"No, sir," Anton said, neutrally, restraining a savage response.

"I am puzzled by their actions," said one braided officer. "Or, rather, by their lack of any actions. They have done nothing but attend church, funerals mostly, shop, and play tourist, and all with heavy ‘chaperones' - why haven't they DONE anything?"

The marine decided to consider that a rhetorical question. Most of the others so far had been little better, anyway.

"Could they have been slipping off using small boats on the harbor side?"

"No, sir," answered Anton. This question had been asked before, about an hour ago. It'd been nearly an insult then; this time he had to grit his teeth. He knew the senior officers were worried and anxious and frustrated, but the many and increasingly inane questions were still beginning to get under his skin. It was bad enough to be forced to guard a pier, for crying out loud. If he (or his men) had ever had to draw a sidearm and use it, the questions here might go on forever. Prolonged peace did this to the military, he knew. War, however, was worse, and he knew that, too.

A brief knock at the door of the conference room was followed by the entrance of a commander bearing a note.

Admiral Benson read it, eyebrows raised. He read it a second time, put the note down before him, and looked about the room.

"Admiral Stennis," he began, "reports that the two British merchantmen scheduled for departures this morning have announced postponement of their sailing dates. The French freighter scheduled for the afternoon has done the same. The Canadian merchant due to leave this afternoon has also postponed her sailing. All sailings for tomorrow have been pulled from all the boards."

"Sir?" Anton opportunistically inserted into the shocked silence, casting a glance at the clock.

"Yes, colonel," said Benson. "Commander, would please see that Colonel Anton makes the 11:00 at Union Station?"

---- 11:00 AM, Washington, DC, Cabinet Offices

"Yes, sir?" The briefer was puzzled to have been re-summoned, but kept his voice even and deferential.

"I remain concerned. That German cruiser in New York. The Germans managed to get the Brits to fire on their liner and kill some innocents with our Navy as witnesses. What's to stop them from sailing, getting out to sea, sinking their own liner, and claiming the Brits did it? Could that be their game?"

The briefer opened his mouth, then closed it again. After a moment he swallowed.

"Sir, you mean could they sink their own liner, rescue who they want, create some damage on their own warship, and blame the British?" He hadn't thought about that one, and that bothered him.

At an affirmative nod, he continued.

"Well, we'd investigate it most thoroughly, of course. If Strassburg pretended to be a ship of the Royal Navy, we could check it out in a day or so. Inside a week, anyway. We're a neutral power and retain diplomats in both countries. Britain would move quickly to prove they hadn't done it. They have lots of ships, but we'd be able to work it out, I'm confident. We also have agents on the ground who could be used to confirm locations of implicated warships."

"Even in Germany?"

"Yes, sir. If the Brits tried a similar stunt, the Germans would be most eager to prove innocence, if innocent they were. That'd be easier, actually, since they have only a dozen or two light cruisers to check. It's just too hard to pull off. Most likely such an attempt would turn out to reveal that the pretended ship could be proven to have been in drydock all along, or something. For example, their light cruiser Stettin somehow suffered a collision and we know she's not going anywhere anytime soon. Conspiracies on that order are just impossible to sustain. We and all the other neutrals would investigate most thoroughly."

"Hmm, ‘suffered a collision,' you say?"

"Yes, sir. We're not sure how, and some versions border on the fantastic, but she certainly ran into something, that we know."

"Very well, thank you."

----11:00 AM, Strassburg, Kommodore von Hoban's stateroom

"Commodore," reported LT Lionel, "we have confirmed it. The Frenchman is NOT raising steam. Her lines are still doubled, and the main hatch covers remain off."

Once the Germans had realized that the Brit merchants had not left at mid-morning, contrary to their previous announcements, they had begun to suspect this.

"The Canadian?"

"No sign of steam, sir, but we can't judge well from here."

"Hmm, your daily visit to the harbormaster's offices, that's been about noon, yes?"

"Yes, sir. I've been waiting until just after they've had second meal."

"Gut. This time, check the boards very carefully, as before. However, get confirmation on the time the last enemy merchant sailed."

"Aye, aye, sir."

----12:45 PM, Washington, DC, White House, Oval Office

George Harvey listened as the briefing continued. The Secretary was informing the President that the British ambassador had called upon him to announce that no more British-flagged merchants would leave New York harbor until the German cruiser had left and was known to be well away. Nor would any other Entente merchants leave. And that it was His Majesty's government's expectation that the United States would abide by The Hague 1907 and either force Strassburg to leave or intern her.

Harvey realized that the British must have completed assembling overwhelming force just off shore. Harvey had already related privately the events of last evening and had told the President that the Germans would still sail, no matter what, liners and all. The expression on the face of the man behind the desk showed him that he knew well what would occur soon thereafter. That appeared to be fated to occur. And that he wanted a way out. And that he hoped Harvey would find him one.

This was far from the first such situation that Harvey had been in. In fact, Harvey had seen ahead to this, thanks to an opinionated admiral. The train ride down from New York this morning had allowed ample opportunity to explore the matter with him. The solution had become obvious just south of Baltimore.

"Their last merchant left when?" Harvey asked, before the silence could grow.

"Just after 6:00 AM this morning. The 24 hour grace period would expire tomorrow at the same time."

"Admiral Benson," Harvey ventured, addressing the senior uniformed officer present, "can that time be sooner, or maybe later? Or must we chivvy Strassburg away from the pier at precisely 6:00 AM?"

"Well," reflected Admiral Benson, "not sooner. The Hague is specific on that. The ‘later' part is not well defined."

"Could it be, say, 12 hours later? For a total of 36 hours?"

"I'm no sea lawyer or diplomat, sir, but I don't see any reason why not. It's pretty much up to us. The Hague guarantees a belligerent the right to remain in a neutral port for 24 hours, 48 if there's a problem getting coal, with provision for even longer with good cause shown, if the Neutral accepts it. Strassburg tried to leave 24 hours after docking, but we stopped her."

"Could we reset the 24 hour clock?" Harvey continued. "Making the interval for them to leave within restart the moment the grace period ends at dawn tomorrow?"

"Yes, sir, to the best of my knowledge," Benson replied, looking about for confirmation. Others nodded.

The tension in the room eased, but none dared smile.

jim (Letterstime)

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